Alcohol brands are tactically retreating from sports sponsorship, and we should celebrate

There has been a number of interesting moves from alcohol brands in recent months which indicate the tide could be turning on alcohol's association with sports. Michael Thorn, chief executive for The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, explores if we are witnessing a tactical retreat by an alcohol industry that sees the writing on the wall, or if this is the start of something bigger and even more significant - a quiet and complete surrender.

When it comes to in-your-face alcohol sponsorship in sport, there have been two stand-out and long-standing contenders. In summer we had the Victoria Bitter One Day International Series, with VB plastered across every possible surface, players’ chests, cricket stumps, the sight screen, ground signage and on the pitch itself. In winter the mantle of most egregious alcohol sponsorship in sport is passed to rugby league, with the NRL’s State of Origin fixtures, as much, if not more so a battle of the beer brands than a battle between state rugby league rivals.

Like the Victoria Bitter ODI Series, it is the Origin players brandishing their respective VB and XXXX logos on their chests that is the most visible and the most objectionable; a guarantee that regardless of what is happening on the field at any point in time, that alcohol will always be front and centre.

And now, that’s all changing.

It’s hard not to interpret this change as a seismic and significant shift in the alcohol sponsorship in sport landscape. Consequently, there are likely to be major implications for advertisers and media businesses.

In March this year, Carlton United Breweries (CUB) ended its 20-year relationship with Cricket Australia. Then earlier this month it walked away from its long-standing $1m front-of-jersey naming rights deal with the NSW Origin team. And just days ago, rival brewer, Lion announced a partial, but just as significant change to its deal with the Queensland Maroons, dialling back its sponsorship and withdrawing from its naming rights contract.

Now in both the case of Cricket Australia and the NSW Blues, Lion have opportunistically swooped in to partially fill the void left by CUB’s withdrawal.


But, the offensive and unmissable alcohol advertising adorned jerseys are, at least for now, gone! The significance of this change shouldn’t be underestimated.

The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, together with doctors, researchers and the health sector more generally, has long argued that alcohol sponsorship in sport is an ill-fitting and dangerous partnership.

A problem because repeated exposure to alcohol advertising leads to children drinking earlier and drinking more. The evidence is irrefutable.

But from this summer onwards, our cricket and State of Origin sporting heroes will no longer be reduced to walking, talking alcohol billboards.

That’s a huge win for Aussie kids, who will be less exposed to alcohol sponsorship, and their parents too, who we know from successive annual polling, are highly concerned by this issue.

So are we witnessing a tactical retreat by an alcohol industry that sees the writing on the wall, or is the start of something bigger and even more significant; a quiet and complete surrender?

When announcing the end of its Cricket Australia sponsorship deal, CUB claimed the decision was ‘purely commercial’.

I remarked at the time that perhaps CUB finally recognised the ‘commercial reality’; that aligning its product to the game of cricket was now doing more harm than good.

It may seem that as CUB has retreated, Lion has advanced.

But upon closer inspection it seems clear that Lion is content to spend less money to secure a less visible sponsorship arrangement.

In fact, both brewers are waning on the sponsorship battleground.

An end to the era of jerseys plastered with alcohol logos is hugely significant, and worthy of celebrating.

But our #BoozeFreeSport campaign wants a complete end to alcohol sponsorship in sport.

The history of tobacco advertising shows that banning unhealthy products need not be calamitous for sport and its sponsorship. In fact, there is no evidence that sports that were closely associated with tobacco advertising were financially disadvantaged in anyway upon its removal. All of these sports have continued to prosper.

There are wheels with wheels with this issue. The complete disruption of media, the ongoing decline of traditional media, parental concern about the impact of unhealthy products on children, and even a greater focus on ‘values’ are influencing decisions about advertising. So too is the business environment complex and evolving; witness the rise of ethical investing, a closer attention to the return on investment from marketing spends, and values-oriented decision making that sees some brands not wanting to be associated with others.

The transformation of advertising through a combination of these factors opens up new opportunities.

One of those is likely to be health promotion: an opposition to unhealthy products such as alcohol, gambling and junk food. Australia’s rising levels of chronic disease warrants comprehensive marketing campaigns to counteract this burden – a market niche where arguably Australia’s advertising sector is the world leader.

Unless we choose to ignore this growing health problem it is likely governments will be calling soon.

Michael Thorn is the chief executive of The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education

Michael Thorn will be part of a panel discussion at the Sports Marketing Summit on Wednesday 21 June at the Sydney Cricket Ground on whether alcohol advertising in sport should be in moderation. For more information, or to nab a last-minute ticket, click here. 


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